Digital ad market shows signs of sharp rebound as Meta, Amazon point to growth

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A year ago, Meta finance chief Susan Li offered chilling commentary about the state of the digital ad market, telling analysts that the struggling industry would remain in a slump.

Speaking to analysts on the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call, Li said at the time that Facebook’s revenue “remained under pressure from weak advertising demand” and that sales would continue “to be impacted by the uncertain and volatile macroeconomic landscape.”

During that period Meta’s ad revenue fell 4%, and Google’s ad business suffered a similar drop. Inflation, supply chain issues and global conflict were all depressing spending.

The narrative is very different now.

With results in from Alphabet, Meta and Amazon — the three U.S. leaders in digital advertising — it’s clear that the market has rebounded, at least for the time being.

Meta’s fourth-quarter ad sales jumped 24% from a year earlier to $38.7 billion, while Amazon’s booming ad unit rose 27% to $14.7 billion. Meanwhile Alphabet, still the market leader, saw its Google ad business rise 11% to $65.5 billion, boosted by 16% growth at YouTube.

Debra Aho Williamson, an independent analyst told CNBC that big advertiser events like the Summer Olympics in Paris and the upcoming presidential elections will contribute to higher spending. Insider Intelligence said in a recent report that global ad spending will jump 10% in 2024, up from growth of 6.3% in 2023 and the same level of expansion the prior year.

“After two years of relative malaise, the outlook is very positive on a global scale and in every major region,” the report said.

Analysts at William Blair expressed similar sentiment. They said businesses appear less concerned with the Russia-Ukraine conflict than in the past and are seeing a potentially more favorable interest rate outlook.

“The current macroeconomic environment is continuing to improve for digital advertising,” they wrote, adding that investments by Meta and Alphabet into artificial intelligence to improve their ad platforms are paying off.

Investors will get additional data on the digital ad market when Snap and Pinterest report earnings this week. Those numbers could look quite different, Williamson said, because they’re “much smaller companies that have struggled to build substantial ad businesses, and in this environment, the big are getting bigger.”

On the whole, “digital advertising is continuing to eat up share” of worldwide advertising, Williamson said.

Whether the big players can maintain the momentum is a question that will persist for the coming quarters. One reason growth looks so strong now is because the numbers are being compared to the year-ago period, when conditions were bleak.

Another bump is coming from China-based advertisers, which are spending heavily to reach users across the globe. Meta said that sales from China represented 10% of revenue last year, and accounted for 5 percentage points of growth. Analysts have said online retailers Temu and Shein are the biggest contributors to Meta’s China business, and have raised concerns that such spending may not last.

Regarding Meta’s China business, Li told analysts last week that “the level of growth in 2023 will probably be hard to replicate, but we’ll just keep watching this and see how it plays out.”

Analysts at Bank of America Global Research warned in a note on Friday that investors shouldn’t look past the conflict in the Red Sea, which is causing supply chain bottlenecks and could lead ecommerce companies to reduce their ad spending.

“We think exposure for Alphabet & Meta is very modest,” they wrote.

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